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Medication nation: Are baby boomers declining, or just whining?

The best-fed, best-educated, wealthiest generation in U.S. history seems to be turning into the most medicated and intoxicated one. Data from numerous studies and surveys suggest that as a group, baby boomers are surprisingly unhealthy as they sidle up to old age, despite - or because of - their liberal use of drugs.

The best-fed, best-educated, wealthiest generation in U.S. history seems to be turning into the most medicated and intoxicated one.

Data from numerous studies and surveys suggest that as a group, baby boomers are surprisingly unhealthy as they sidle up to old age, despite - or because of - their liberal use of drugs.

Generalizations are dangerous, especially with a gang as vast and varied as boomers. But the nation's 81 million 46- to 64-year-olds - who grew up in postwar prosperity, expecting things to improve indefinitely, and shaped the culture by their sheer numbers - surely didn't foresee these bleak barometers:

* In 2006, the vast majority of Americans 57 to 64 were on at least one prescription drug, and more than a quarter were on five or more medications, a University of Chicago survey found. Painkillers and heart-disease drugs topped the list.

_ Hospital admissions for substance abuse and drug misuse have risen among 45- to 64-year-olds as boomers have swelled this demographic niche. Since 1997, such admissions have grown from 108,000 to 196,000, driven by drug-induced delirium, painkiller overdoses, narcotic withdrawal and alcohol-related disorders, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported last month.

* About a third of boomers were obese by middle age, nearly twice the prevalence in the two preceding generations, according to a 2005 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Boomers also have been fatter much longer, - which is one reason they had 20 million prescriptions for the diabetes drug metformin last year.

With all this, it may not be surprising that boomers reported having more pain, more chronic health problems, and more drinking and psychiatric problems at ages 51 to 56 than prior generations reported at the same ages, University of Pennsylvania researchers found.

For their 2006 study, the Penn researchers mined responses collected from 50-something's in 1992, 1998 and 2004 by the federal Health and Retirement Study. Only half of the boomers interviewed in 2004 said their health was good or excellent, compared with 57 percent of the 1992 group and 53 percent of the 1998 group.

"Overall, the raw evidence indicates that boomers on the verge of retirement are in poorer health than their counterparts 12 years ago," pension researcher Olivia Mitchell and her colleagues wrote.

There is, however, another possibility. Since the raw evidence came from boomers' self-assessments, it could be biased by their expectations. For example, boomers may be spoiled by their abundant health care.

"The very act of seeking care for even minor health problems increases awareness of other . . . problems," the researchers said. "Changing notions of health in aging increase intolerance of minor pain, slight loss of stamina, or even minute loss of strength."

So are boomers physically declining - or just whining - more than their ancestors?

Mitchell, a boomer, called that "the $64 billion question."

"There are two schools of thought," she wrote in a recent e-mail. "One theory holds that boomers have smoked less over their lifetimes and thus will be healthier in old age. A second view points out that boomers are heavier and exercise less, so are more prone to obesity/diabetes than their predecessors - and hence less healthy."

Nancy K. Schlossberg, 81, an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland and author of Revitalizing Retirement, believes boomers are whinier, - although she put it more diplomatically.

"It's your psychological makeup, whether you're a health optimist or a health pessimist," she said. "It relates to your expectations with aging. It hits baby boomers: 'Oh, my God, I'm out of breath! Oh, my God, my knees hurt!' Maybe it wasn't such a shock for people of my [older] generation because we didn't expect to take the tiger by the tail."

In any case, a growing number of boomers have the blues. Prescriptions for antidepressants called SSRIs grew from 45 million in 2005 to 52 million last year among Americans 45 to 65, according to data from SDI, a health-analytics firm in Plymouth Meeting.

Suicide rates are another indicator that lots of boomers are depressed. Middle-age people traditionally have the lowest suicide rates of all age groups. But in 2000, the rates for ages 40 to 59 began rising, especially for unmarried men and women, according to a study led by Rutgers University sociologist Julie A. Phillips.

By 2005 - when all boomers had turned 40, - the suicide rate for unmarried middle-age men had climbed almost 10 percent to 51 per 100,000, while the rate for unmarried women has risen about 14 percent to 13 per 100,000.

This disturbing trend, the researchers conclude, reflects the nature of boomers - they had exceptionally high suicide rates in adolescence - and the nature of the times. Today, the recession, layoffs, foreclosures and shrinking retirement savings may be hitting boomers harder than others.

Could substance abuse also be a factor?

Although Phillips could only speculate, she said by e-mail: "We certainly know that depression and substance abuse are leading risk factors for suicide. It's also known that substance-abuse rates are higher among boomers than other birth cohorts."

Data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggest that many in the Woodstock generation still like to go one toke over the line. About 1.7 million Americans age 50-plus (or 2.3 percent) admitted abusing or being dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs - primarily marijuana - in 2000.

Abuse aside, federal data show that the majority of boomers (including, by their own admission, a former president and the current one) have at least tried illicit drugs. Consider that in 1930, only 10 percent of Americans had ever used illegal drugs; as late as 1950, fewer than half of Americans admitted it. But ever since the 1960s, when boomers came of age, the rate has been between 60 and 70 percent.

In light of these indicators, more than a few pundits and scholars have projected that the health-care system could buckle as boomers make their final transition to old age.

But others point out that huge swaths of boomers are vigorous and serene. As Gary Geyer, editor of online boomer magazine, recently wrote: "The mistake researchers (and the media) make when looking to analyze the statistics is lumping all baby boomers together as if we're some sort of club. We are married, single, divorced, widowed, retired, working, unemployed, wealthy, middle class, physically fit, fat, skinny, disabled, Republicans, Democrats, meat eaters, vegetarians, gay, straight, introverts, go-getters, old-fashioned, trendy, and every race and religion under the sun.

"We just happen to be over 50, and there are more of us."

Contact staff writer Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or